Four more years (maybe)

One week on, a result of sorts – namely, Labor’s first election victory at federal or state level in nearly four years.

It’s now official that Jay Weatherill has pulled off the unlikely feat of retaining government in South Australia, following yesterday’s revelation that one of the two independents will be on sick leave for the next two months, and today’s announcement that the other will fall in behind Labor. As anticipated on election night, Labor has emerged with 23 seats in the 47-member House of Assembly, with the Liberals on 22 and the aforementioned independents retaining their seats in Fisher (Bob Such) and Frome (Geoff Brock). Bob Such’s health issues left the Liberals high and dry, as Labor would have commanded a majority on the floor regardless of whether the Speaker’s chair was filled by a Liberal or by Brock. Consequently, the alternatives facing Brock were a Labor minority government, or parliamentary deadlock and a fresh election. Much as opponents of Labor and/or minority government in general might complain that the latter is the preferable option, they have no reason to suppose the result of a second election would be any different from the first.

While Labor continues to govern for now, there will remain a considerable element of uncertainty until Bob Such makes his intentions known. Should he duly return after the currently prescribed two months, he might well conclude that today’s events amount to a fait accompli, and that he must throw his lot in with Labor for the sake of stability – quite apart from the indications that were emerging that he was disposed to do so anyway. Labor would nonetheless be left clinging to the barest of majorities, with the constant danger of being brought down by a by-election defeat or the defection of any member who might happen to feel aggrieved over a policy dispute or demotion.

Alternatively, Brock could decide that Such’s return marks the occasion to reconsider his position, and both might at that point throw their lot in with the Liberals. The difficulty here is the bareness of the resulting Liberal majority, and the constant need for the occupant of the Speaker’s chair to cast his or her vote in favour of the government, whether that Speaker be a Liberal or one of the two independents. The other prospect is that Such proves unable to return to parliament, requiring a by-election in his seat of Fisher. That would almost certainly be won by the Liberals, given the conservatism of the electorate and the likely absence of enthusiasm for a new independent. The Liberals would thereby gain parity of seats with Labor, and Brock would come under considerable pressure to change sides.

The question that would then arise is whether Labor’s defeat would entail a simple transfer of power to the Liberals, or the new election that much of the media is sure to be clamouring for. While the South Australian parliament theoretically has fixed terms, the constitution provides an escape clause, as fixed term regimes in parliamentary systems inevitably must. However, this is constitutionally murky in practice, with no precedent existing for its exercise in any of the Australian states and territories where fixed terms operate. The specific provision in South Australia simply provides that the Governor may dissolve the house if the government loses a confidence vote, which appears to envision him or her being advised to do so by the defeated Premier in circumstances where a new government cannot be formed. But if the independents were set on having the Liberals serve out the term, it isn’t clear that the Governor would consider that such a situation applied.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

45 comments on “Four more years (maybe)”

  1. I’m interested to see that the Premier spoke of the need for electoral reform yesterday. I have to wonder how significant any such reforms could be during the terms of a minority government (although theoretically such a situation might see it more likely to occur).

  2. So until Such comes back, there’s an even number of seats in the house, and Labor have exactly half of them. At least that ain’t permanent… if the SA Libs asked their colleagues in Vic for advice on changing the electoral system, hopefully one of the answers would be “don’t have an even number of seats”. Another independent named Geoff is probably making the Vic Libs wish they had 89 or 87 seats in their parliament.

    Meanwhile, SA Labor oughta be busy right now making sure they don’t have any potential Geoff Shaws on their side.

  3. There is a rational reason for wanting stability by both independents. The last thing either would want is another election.

  4. Another illustration of why fixed terms are a pernicious violation of the Westminster system. The beauty of Westminster is its flexibility. Trying to prescribe its operations through fixed terms makes it less flexible, and encourages sharp practice.


    [ Liberals squeal while Labor promises to change
    David Washington | 24 March 2014

    Senior Liberals have attacked the legitimacy of the state Labor Government following the weekend’s deal between Premier Jay Weatherill and independent Geoff Brock to deliver the party power in South Australia.

    Brock says he decided to back Labor to ensure the stability of government in South Australia, in the wake of revelations that fellow independent MP Bob Such will be facing surgery and at least two months’ leave.


    Meanwhile, Weatherill this week is moving to establish a new government, hinting today that he might give up the Treasury portfolio and giving strong indications that two women would be elevated to the Cabinet to replace former ministers Chloe Fox and Grace Portolesi, both of whom lost their seats at the March 15 election.

    It seems likely that the left’s Susan Close will be be elevated to Cabinet, while from the Right the options would be Leesa Vlahos or Zoe Bettison.

    The announcement of the new Cabinet is likely to be at least a week away, however it is certain that Geoff Brock will be sworn in as regional development and local government relations minister. A position in the ministry was offered to him, he says, by both sides of politics.

    Senior Labor MP Michael Atkinson, who now holds the safest Labor seat in South Australia, is likely to maintain his position as Speaker of the House of Assembly.


    InDaily understands there are also likely to be significant changes in Labor’s back rooms, with some long-standing political operatives looking to move on.]

  6. Fixed Terms
    A nonsense
    I agree that fixed terms give us an almost a dodgy hybrid system…a kind of Wash-Minister model

    A good/bad example is currently on display in the Vic Parlt. where the Napthine Govt is in a Parlt. seen as virtually unworkable…but it has no option but to continue it’s full term

    I suspect the agitation for fixed terms came from what was seen as oportunistic actions by some Govts. In Vic, Kennett’s last tern was shortened by a year only to fall to Bracks,who seemed a rather unlikely winner at first sight,but proved to be invincible once in power

  7. Having argued for stability with Brock, Bob Such is not going to then side with the party who discarded him. Honestly the Liberal party will now fall apart and change leaders 10 times before 2018

  8. Surprised by what sore losers the Libs have been on this – Marshall and Pyne have proven themselves most ungracious in defeat. Undermining and simply incorrect comments like “illegitimate” are certainly not in the interest of the state they serve.

  9. [Surprised by what sore losers the Libs have been on this]
    Surprised that anyone is surprised.

    We had three years of this from 2010-2013 at the federal level.

    They do not respect democracy or our particular system.

  10. [urprised by what sore losers the Libs have been on this – Marshall and Pyne have proven themselves most ungracious in defeat. Undermining and simply incorrect comments like “illegitimate” are certainly not in the interest of the state they serve.]

    Pyne is one of the most ungracious people you’ll ever meet.

  11. Pyne 2010: Labor has no legitimacy federally becasue the coalition won more seats.
    Note, that in 2010 federal labor won on two party preferred votes
    Pyne 2014: Labor has no legitimacy becasue it didn’t win the two party preferred vote.
    Note, Labor won more seats in SA 2014.

    Draw you own conclusions about C Pyne.

  12. Not sure what the margin of error is on this Roy Morgan poll.

    >If a Federal Election were held today it would result in an ALP victory – two-party preferred support is ALP 54.5% (up 1% since the Morgan Poll of March 1/2 & 8/9, 2014) cf. L-NP 45.5% (down 1%) according to the Morgan Poll. This multi-mode Morgan Poll on voting intention was conducted over the last two weekends (March 15/16 & 22/23, 2014) with an Australia-wide cross-section of 2,909 Australian electors aged 18+.

    >The ALP primary vote is 38.5% (up 1.5%) now ahead of the L-NP 38% (down 1.5%) for the first time since last year’s September Election.

    >Among the minor parties Greens support is 11% (down 1%), support for the Palmer United Party (PUP) is 4.5% (up 0.5%) and support for Independents/Others is 8% (up 0.5%). Support for PUP is highest in Western Australia (10.5%) – which faces a Senate election in under two weeks.

  13. Is it true the libs would have won ash ford and elder on the old boundaries before they were “adjusted” by the fairness commissioners ?

  14. [Is it true the libs would have won ash ford and elder on the old boundaries before they were “adjusted” by the fairness commissioners ?]
    Is it true that if we truly are in just one dimension of a multidimensional universe that the Libs would have won a majority?

    BTW, the Libs only won Bright thanks to the redistribution. They are completely farqing hopeless marginal seat campaigners. They don’t actually have volunteer workers, they just have hangers on who don’t do anything.

  15. [Thanks shows on confirmation enough – “fairness” did the trick!]
    The fairness provision is in there thanks to the Liberals who refused to amend the electoral act in 1989 unless it was included.

    The fact the provision – and their own hopeless campaigning – keeps causing them to lose elections is hilarious.

  16. [Is it true the libs would have won ash ford and elder on the old boundaries before they were “adjusted” by the fairness commissioners ?]

    Certainly not. The commissioners made Ashford 4.2% worse for Labor, and Elder 1.9%. If you apply 2014 election swings to 2010 election margins, the result is exactly the same. The charge against the commissioners is that they didn’t do enough to tilt the ground to the Liberals – not that they tilted it to Labor.

  17. Even if Such were to come back and support the Libs, why on earth would Brock change his position? The conservative voters in his seat (though not necessarily those who vote for him) would blame him for putting Labor in, and he wouldn’t have had 4 years to deliver the benefits of his Regional Development ministry to show for it.

  18. The news reported Weatherill has told Brock he will keep Nyrstar going in Port pirie. I would assume if he fails at this then Brock would be entitled to reconsider. Nyrstar is a multinational and will make the decision according to its bottom line.

  19. I was a little bemused by the reaction of the Liberals yesterday to Geoff Brock’s announcement. It would be very difficult, now, for Geoff Brock to support a minority Liberal Government in the future, regardless of Dr Such’s circumstances.

    It is now far more likely than not that SA Labor will serve another 4 year term in Government.

    I just wonder what the Liberal strategists were thinking. A measured, considered and sympathetic response could have left the door open, awaiting further news about Dr Such’s health issues and the possibility of a future by election in his seat. As it is, Brock has been left no room to move.

    It might not have made much difference in the end, but surely such an approach would have been preferable. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the lack of strategic thinking that cost the Liberals a majority in the first place.

  20. I doubt very much Mr Brock will change allegiances, especially after being sworn in as a Minister and working with people. I suspect Jay has put together a solid deal for Mr Brock and the regions.

    The Liberal Party really need to learn to put up some decent candidates and some actual ideas. I take Light for example, solid local MP and Minister, running against the guy he beat last time. Surely the Liberal party could have found someone better?

    I wonder if it’s also to deal with State issues? Schools, Hospitals, Community Services are really not the Liberal’s strong point. They do not have a good track record in SA, and a “It’s Time” motto obviously does not cut it.

  21. Outsider

    Brock didn’t even have a choice. If he went with the Libs, there would have been a new election. If Such was around, the Libs could legitimately complained about the indies if they backed Labor but I really can’t see that Brock had any option.

    The Libs are just hopeless.

  22. Yes Diogenes I agree that in the present circumstances Brock did not have much choice.

    My comment was really about the Liberals reaction, which didn’t seem to me to be very smart, given the potential uncertainties over coming months.

    However maybe the Libs know that Brock is now not for changing. This would explain their strategy yesterday. Focus their attack on Brock (so Frome returns to the Libs in 2014) and on the “illegitimacy” of the Labor government for the next 4 years. Couldn’t agree more that the SA Libs are just hopeless!!!

  23. The Liberals have not been smart at all. They could have said that they have been working on forming a government and given the voting outcome they would be expecting Mr Brock and Mr Such to support them. They would continue to work towards forming a government. 4 years is a long time etc.

    Interesting that Brock said the Libs had also offered him a Ministerial position. I wonder if they also offered to dump their Council rate capping suggestion and to support Mr Brock and Mr Such in future election campaigns.

  24. Scott

    Light is a good example where the local Liberal branch’s main financial contributor became the candidate – twice. It mattered not that he was not highly regarded locally, nor that he was a noted poor campaigner from the first time.

    A Liberal insider told me on the weekend that they expected a fortnight out from the election that they could pick up as many as 14 seats so swung some extra resources into ‘middle’ seats such as Enfield & Whyalla where they thought they could pick up some bonus seats – but by the time their own polling indicated that their 2PP was falling dangerously in the marginals, it was too late, and of course all they needed was for their leader to tell people to vote Labor on the day before election day…

  25. IT – any figures on donations in Light. My reading was that some at least of the massive splurge in the last 2 weeks came from the Roseworthy development/Hickenbotham camp?

  26. In light of Dr Such’s illness, the smart liberal strategy would have been to convince Brock not to show his hand at this stage, and encourage him to abstain from any motion of confidence on resumption of Parliament. This would have allowed Labor to form government (23/22 majority on the floor, with neither Such nor Brock voting) but with the opportunity for the independents to come to a final position once Dr Such had recovered from his illness, and potentially support a minority liberal government in 3 months time.

    This strategy would have been even smarter in a scenario where Dr Such resigns his seat and the Liberals win the by election, as most have assumed they would.

  27. Wakefield

    Donations, as you probably know, are not required to be declared for South Australian state elections so we will never know.

    In South Australia, the Liberal Party play Russian roulette by putting 5 bullets in the gun and pulling the trigger.

  28. Bob Such’s office has released a statement saying that he has a brain tumor and will be seeking treatment for it. It was first suggested that he might have a brain tumor on the 21st of March, so after the election.

  29. In the interests of fairness, here is a link to the Liberal Party’s 2012 submission to the redistribution commission:

    I hope that works!

    The submission would have led to 26 notional Liberal seats. Looking at the suggested boundary maps, the only one that looks particularly weird is that for Stuart.

    What would be interesting to know is how that would have translated to seats won based on 2014 results. Presumably it would have led to a Liberal majority government…..

    My bet is that at the next redistribution the Commission will embark on a much more radical adjustment to boundaries along the lines of the Liberal suggestions in 2012. I have posted this to demonstrate that boundaries can be realigned in a way that would have (presumably) led to a Liberal victory in 2014 with 53% 2pp.

    That said, there is always the argument that Labor would have adjusted its campaigning to target the “new” ,marginals. We will never know what might have been…..

  30. I doubt the ECSA would be anywhere near as aggressive as that Liberal submission.

    Splitting Whyalla between Giles and Flinders is a blatant violation of community of interest principles. Normally the non-Labor side complains about massive electorates at redistribution time; but their proposed Giles must be 80-90% of the state!

    Goydor’s encroachment into into suburban Adelaide is also dubious.

  31. ECSA’s redistribution is unlikely to be too radical as the seat count is a bit more reflective of the total vote than it was last time.

    Also, the Liberal vote is very heavily concentrated in its “safe” territory, which makes it hard to work with.

    Most likely I see Newland being changed to a notionally Liberal seat. It is the most marginal seat and doesn’t require tricky tinkering (just chop off its western-most area and, if it needs extra territory, add to the eastern area.)

    Colton could also be made more Liberal by giving it West Beach, although the tinkering required to make sure the other seats in the region, namely Morphett, fair proportions might be a bit tricky.

    This kind of stuff is difficult to predict, even for me. Because it’s not just a matter of gerrymandering the districts to the point of getting desired notional results. One needs to consider things like geographical boundaries and not just shifting voters around needlessly just because their area happens to be on the border of a marginal or two. The districts can’t just be “Spaghettied”

  32. The Upper House result was a bit boring – just as predicted, and as the major AND minor parties wanted.

  33. Carey and David. I understand what you’re both saying. I understand the range of factors the Boundaries Commission has to take into consideration. The point I should have made clearer is that after two consecutive “wrong” election results, the Commissioners may come under greater to place the fairness requirement above the others. I know the a liberal submission had its flaws and I had noted David’s point about the very odd splitting of Whyalla. The reason I posted the link is to show that boundaries can be redrawn in a way which would lead to an increased number of notional Liberal seats going into the next election. We will have to wait and see what attitude the Commissioners take. If they stick with the status quo, this time, I wouldn’t mind betting we see a Supreme Court appeal by the Libs.

  34. Quick question for those in the know – when they complain that the Liberal party didn’t win the majority of seats on 53% of the 2pp, how do they calculate the statewide 2pp? How does the result in seats like Fisher and Frome affect the statewide 2pp calculation?

  35. I think the problem the Liberals have is Labor are better campaigners in the marginals. That won’t change if you redraw the boundaries.

    I believe they count Fisher and Frome twice. Once for Labor vs Liberals and once with the seat.

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